Sunday, July 20, 2008

Oh what a Knight!

I just got home from watching The Dark Knight, and I can still feel the adrenaline pumping through me as if I had just chugged a gallon of coffee or jogged home from the Promenade. There are movies that take your breath away because of the fantastic cinematography ,or the dazzling special effects, or the powerful performances. TDK does all that, but it also literally takes your breath away because you just can't stand the suspense. More than once throughout its run of 2 hours and 40 minutes, I found myself leaning forward in my seat, or clutching my armrests, or covering my mouth in anxiety. When the end credits started to roll, I slumped back and exhaled, exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.

So yes, happily, all the hype proves true: The Dark Knight is phenomenal. Not only does it redefine the Batman franchise (which director Christopher Nolan helped resuscitate with Batman Begins), it redefines everything we have come to expect from a superhero movie. This is a superhero FILM, where the hero is more than a caped-and-cowled crime-fighter with a souped-up vehicle and high-tech gadgets, where the villain is more than a homicidal loon with a painted face, where the conflict is more than just good versus evil. In TDK, the lines between
hero and villain, and right and wrong, are blurred, and the moral dilemmas faced by the central characters are what propel the movie forward and keep the viewers' hearts racing, more than the stunts or the action sequences or the fight scenes. This is a story of crime and corruption, of a system gone rotten, of monsters wreaking havoc, of decent men and women turning into the very monsters they battle. Psychotic clown in costume aside, it seems not only all too possible, but all too painfully familiar. I wouldn't go so far as to say TDK functions as a realistic, thought-provoking social commentary, but for a big-budget blockbuster about a vigilante who dresses up as a bat, it's about as philosophical as you can get.

Christian Bale is without question the best Batman and Bruce Wayne we've seen onscreen.
Batman has always been my favorite superhero precisely because he's not superhuman, and he has never been more human as portrayed in TDK, where he grapples with the enormous responsibility of safeguarding an ungrateful Gotham City, and coming to terms with the personal sacrifices that have to be made for the greater good. Thanks to Bale's intensity (he sometimes reminds me of Johnny Depp in that way), this internal struggle is conveyed with both subtlety and clarity, reflecting the class of actor he is. It also helps that he's surrounded by a trio of acting legends who deliver expectedly stellar supporting performances as Batman's closest allies: Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Lt. Jim Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. Meanwhile, Aaron Eckhart turns in what in my opinion is a breakthrough performance as Harvey Dent, the upstanding, seemingly incorruptible District Attorney who's on a crusade against the mob leaders of Gotham. As Dent, Eckhart is convincingly charismatic, and captures the idealistic fervor of an honest public servant trying to make a difference. Maggie Gyllenhaal is infinitely less annoying than Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, the love interest of both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, but there were times when I felt as if she were playing Mrs. Tom Cruise playing Rachel rather than giving her own portrayal of the character. Knowing Gyllenhaal's fantastic range as an actress, I was a bit disappointed with her this time.

But it doesn't really matter because let's face it, everyone knows this movie is all about the guy who gave the performance of a lifetime (in more than one sense). I never thought I'd see the day when someone could give Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter a run for his Chianti and fava beans, but Heath Ledger's Joker comes pretty damn close. Looking like a demented, demonic and deadlier version of Jack Nicholson's incarnation of Batman's greatest nemesis, Ledger's Joker is terrifying in every aspect: his oily voice, his greasy hair, his jerky mannerisms, his manic laugh. The character's unpredictability, his random acts of senseless violence and chaos, his twisted sense of humor, are all brought to life by Ledger in a transformation that goes beyond mere acting. At the risk of sounding trite, he didn't just play the Joker, he became the Joker. You cannot catch a single glimpse of the charming Aussie boy we fell in love with in 10 Things I Hate About You, or the strong-willed son from The Patriot, or the romantic rebel from A Knight's Tale, or the reticent, repressed cowboy from Brokeback Mountain. In TDK, Heath Ledger shows the world both the heights and depths of his talent as a thespian by bringing to life the most reckless, ruthless, repugnant, and reprehensible figure to plague Gotham City. When the Joker wields a knife and points it at someone's throat, you can feel the audience freeze in collective tension. When he threatens to blow up something or someone, it resonates with a careless, flippant menace that is all the more frightening. When he walks into a room or looks at the camera, his presence is magnetic in a formidably fearsome way. His madman antics and atrocities are blood-chilling not so much because Ledger is barely recognizable through the grotesque makeup, but because you forget all together that you're watching Heath Ledger; instead you feel like you're actually witnessing a dangerous nutjob perpetrate the stuff nightmares are made of. Ledger's Joker is the consummate villain: a crazed crook with no moral center, no game plan and no remorse, the perfect antithesis to Batman's principles and logic and omnipresent angst. One of the best moments of TDK has the Joker both mockingly and sincerely telling Batman, "You complete me", an apt encapsulation of how their sinister symbiotic relationship works: one's existence validates the other's.

Chris Nolan has outdone himself with what feels to be not so much a sequel to Batman Begins as a follow-up project that passes its predecessor in all standards of style and substance. The only problem now is how he's going to top himself next time. He's certainly going to be hard-pressed to find someone else to play the Joker, so I doubt he'll even try. But if anyone can live up to and exceed our expectations, Nolan can. And until the next installment in his Batman series, we have the lingering, horrifying, brilliant images of Heath Ledger's Joker to tide us over. May we never forget the madness of the monster, and the genius of the man.


At Monday, July 21, 2008, Blogger Sean said...

In a word, the movie was incredible. It had everything that I wanted to see in a superhero movie - serious moral dilemma, a good hard look at background reality, and a sharp contrast between those who live by the rules and those with absolutely no regard for those same rules. Then the movie kicked it up two notches further, and let everything sink in.

While I credit the writers and the director for the sheer impact of the film, I can't deny that Heath Ledger was very good. He played his part to the very hilt, and the movie greatly benefited because of it; his Joker will be remembered as one of the best villains ever brought to the screen.

That said, I can name a number of scenes that I loved. Without giving anything away, I'll mention the ferry scene, the Batmobile backup, the assassination attempt, the twist, the double twist, the implanted cellphone, the mountain of cash, the final fate of Rachel's letter, and every single scene that involved the two-headed coin. There are quite a few award-giving bodies that probably won't recognize this movie because it's "not their type", but it's a winner in my book already.

At Monday, July 21, 2008, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

That ferry scene had my stomach all tied up in knots. My friend Yang said it would make a great topic of discussion in a Philo class. Haha.

And the Batpod totally kicked ass. =D


Post a Comment

<< Home